The Wheel in Space

This story is not known to exist in its original format
(6 black-and-white 25-minute TV episodes)
in its entirety.
See below for episodes available on DVD / video CD Audio - 2 discs
(Doctor Who Story No. 43, starring Patrick Troughton)
  • written by David Whitaker, from a story by Kit Pedler
  • directed by Tristan de Vere Cole
  • produced by Peter Bryant
  • music by Brian Hodgson
  • 6 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The TARDIS interior collapses, depositing the Doctor and Jamie on an abandoned "Silver Carrier" rocket that had failed to reach its scheduled destination 9 weeks ago. What has happened to her four-person crew? What is the purpose of the dangerous servo robot patrolling its corridors? Why has it gone so far off course, now approaching a circular space-station known as "The Wheel"? As the crew of the Wheel regard the rocket as a possible threat, their commander favours shooting it down. With the Doctor suffering concussion, will Jamie be able to find an ally in Astrophysicist Zoe Herriot, so that they can identify the real invaders of the Wheel?

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have
already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

Unfortunately, this tale leaves former story editor David Whitaker holding the writer's Wooden Turkey Award at the end of season five. His scripts for "The Enemy of the World" (story no. 40) and "The Wheel in Space" are not really bad, but are easily surpassed by the rest of the offerings. This cyber-adventure set somewhere in space has a very twisted and illogical plot, and more unwatchable characters than anywhere else in the season.

Jarvis Bennett is such a single-minded ineffective old fruit, it is a great wonder how he ever could have gained command of a space station. Leo Ryan and Tanya Lernov ooze romantic clichés so badly and so profusely that you know you are watching a third rate drama instead of real life. And so on, and so on..... the basic formula Whitaker seems to be using for creating characters is to take a normal average Joe or Jane out of the factory mould, and dent them with some kind of serious flaw, usually an emotional issue so big that it will cloud their common sense.

Episode one is less plagued than other episodes, since the guest characters' debut is only a brief scene or two at the end. Extra music from Brian Hodgson helps make this lonely exploration of a derelict rocket quite moody. The Doctor and Jamie's quest for mercury is a sad re-run plot element stolen from "The Daleks" (story no. 2), but at least the collapse of the limitless interior of the TARDIS throws a new and interesting angle into the works.
Music by Brian Hodgson
is available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who
at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Volume 1:
The Early Years 1963-1969

Find out more here.

Whitaker invents a completely contrived, bogus reason for Jarvis Bennett to want to destroy the rocket. It makes no sense at all, and is too obviously just an excuse for the first cliffhanger. As this story progressed, I cringed and grew apprehensive each time Jarvis was present in a scene, knowing it would go to the dogs, and it pretty much always does. Though the other characters do ask the question of how Bennett ever got command, and there is an answer, it's completely unconvincing. Jarvis is a character type who might buy, inherit, or schmooze his way into a high position, and then not really be up to it - which could work in a historical story. Going into space, with his total lack of thinking ability, he'll be lucky to get higher up than the janitor, let alone the top position on any particular crew.

Episode two is Doctor-less, yet if we must have Doctor-less episodes, at least we're not in danger of marring a classic in this story. An unconscious Doctor is much better than one missing in action, as his companions need waste no time "looking" for him aimlessly and can keep the main plot rolling. Episode two is still strong with Jamie meeting Zoe for the first time, in a series of scenes that work quite well. Thankfully, Zoe is a considerable exception among the new characters, sporting extra abilities and enthusiasm which do her credit. Her character is both useful and entertaining, able to jump with both feet into the exploration and adventure that Doctor Who is all about much better than Victoria did.

Episode three aptly demonstrates the poor dynamics at work in the interaction among the crew of the Space Wheel. Leo Ryan acts like a pathetic cheeseball throughout, firstly with the all too obvious and obnoxious way he drools towards Tanya Lernov, and later when he takes his own moody bad temper out on Zoe for no good reason. Defence Officer Bill Duggan discovers alien robots invading the storage cupboards in the Wheel's main weapon room, and through some brain aneurism thinks it's best to keep that to himself. What kind of a defence officer is that? Jarvis Bennett refuses to listen to anyone else's opinion, keeps his head firmly planted in the ground, and fails to prove that he has a single shred of command ability at any point in the story. Gemma seems to be the only person with a head on her shoulders, but even she fails to make any sense out of the plot. She can recount it, but can't actually link together any of the separate random events that she details in her dissertation to Jarvis - there's nothing in all of that for any of the characters or the audience to sink their teeth into, and no developments spring forth. Whitaker's non-plot stumbles in through one space port and just as quickly evaporates out of the other. You could actually increase clarity by cutting that distracting scene. And then there's the Armenian guy played by Kevork Malikyan. The director lets him get away with giving a performance geared for the stage, and with the camera getting unbelievably close, it ends up looking way over the top on screen.

This third rate drama is saved by the fact that Pat Troughton and Frazer Hines are present to play the Doctor and Jamie, who are as entertaining as ever. Wendy Padbury's enthusiasm for working with Troughton spills over into her role, and the three of them are extremely watchable, as they begin to investigate the mysteries at hand, and discover evidence of the Cybermen being behind it all. Pretty much from the moment she meets Troughton's Doctor, Zoe seems to be less a member of the Wheel's crew, and more a proper TARDIS time-traveller. She is certainly a character of a higher calibre than any of the guests from the Wheel. Still, many of Whitaker's lines for Zoe display his lack of scientific knowledge: rockets do not burn set amounts of fuel based on how far they travel, they only burn fuel when speeding up or slowing down. Zoe's calculations seem to be based on a false assumption more than anything else.

One Lump or Two?

The Doctor has had a concussion, and so gets a full examination from Gemma. I suppose we must excuse her for not noticing that the Doctor has two hearts, as none of the writers have come up with the idea yet. In fact, she doesn't seem to notice anything at all alien about the Doctor, or if she did, it doesn't faze her in the least. We do see the first use of the "John Smith" alias, given to the Doctor by Jamie, which apparently stemmed from an inventor or manufacturer's name written onto one of Gemma's instruments.

Another question: where exactly in space IS the Wheel, and what is its function? For all the talk about it being in "deep space", it seems much more likely that it is somewhere in our solar system, if not in Earth orbit. The Cybermen view it as a stepping stone to Earth, Zoe feels that a city on Earth is more her home than the Wheel, and most importantly, references to space objects always include the fact that they are "in" one constellation or another, which can only remain the case when they are viewed from our solar system. "Star Trek 7: Generations" showed us quite graphically what happens when the gravitational balance of space objects goes out of proportion, throwing some objects onto new courses. Whitaker's script basically says that the Cybermen are doing the same thing here. Would you believe that it is easier for them to synchronize the "ionization" of various stars in distant corners of our galaxy like clockwork details of a masterplan, yet be unable to invade the Earth without taking over the insane asylum among space stations? Or that meteors from M13 in Hercules can arrive at the Wheel in merely a few hours? (How much fuel would THEY need?) Ultimately, from what we get here, it feels like Whitaker still believed that the Earth is something big at the center of the known universe, while by comparison the stars are just little lights in the sky somewhere.

The entrance of the Cybermen in episode three is well-done, but the poor Cybermen are not very impressive afterwards. The cyber-planner is an ill-conceived idea - enemies who design their leaders without any ability to move just don't seem very bright at all. Then the silly cyber-planner takes the best cybervoice that we have grown to know from Peter Hawkins, while Roy Skelton has to do the rest of the cyber army without a proper buzzing pallet. Something's missing, for sure. The wobble that he adds to the voice to make up for the missing pallet makes the Cybermen sound unconfident and weak, which is not good. The acting of the extras encased in cyber-costumes or space suits is not very riveting.

Musically, only one mood seems to be prominently given voice throughout the episodes: that the Cybermen are cooking up something creepy. Well, that's very good. But can that cover all the bases? It often seems to leave a sort of sleepy, hypnotic haze over the story. Lullaby time again.

Episode Six is an improvement over number three, mostly because there are more action and special effects sequences which director Tristan de Vere Cole did fairly well on. The Doctor is up and about, being heroically busy. Leo Ryan can't think about anything but blasting meteorites, continuing to sound like a gruff, uncaring simpleton. And who really cares if Zoe calculated a risk before taking it? Danger is danger, and the Doctor has asked his friends to do it instead of jumping in himself. Sounds cowardly..... but at least the Doctor confronts some Cybermen this episode and sorts out the possessed crewmembers. Good job.

"You know our ways."

Yes, the good guys pretty much have to know the Cybermen's ways if they're going to make any sense out of this plot. This is the main drawback of "The Wheel in Space" - the Cybermen's plans are not so much investigated and discovered as they are theorized and predicted, based on the most illogical pieces of "evidence". This approach really does not work well this time, as it has not been properly thought out. The Cybermen are not anywhere near as interesting here, because they are such known quantities. Contrast this with their excellent debut "The Tenth Planet" (story no. 29), in which Cybermen were culturally explored and treated with first contact etiquette (even despite the fact that the Doctor had historical fore-knowledge about them), and you will find that bringing back a character, or species of character, is not as important as bringing back the dynamics of interaction that made that character a success. Perhaps this is why Robert Holmes always preferred new villains to old ones: their freshness allows the Doctor and friends to continue to explore them and ask questions about them.....

The characters on the Wheel seem to get a little better during the final 2 episodes, barring Jarvis Bennett who never works at any point. At least Tanya and Leo Ryan's closing scene, unmotivated as it is, isn't quite as silly or icky as the rest of what we've seen of them. Gemma is sorely missed in the final episode, especially as she seemed a better candidate for new Space Wheel Commander than Ryan. Ryan does seem more balanced when watching/listening to episodes 5 and 6 together, rather than just episode 6 on its own. Zoe's character still shines best, hinting in the missing episodes 4 and 5 how the human side of the usual Kit Pedler cybernization theme might be playing out in this particular tale.... Too bad it feels tacked on amongst all the other unsatisfying character distractions evidenced here. If there's a character to truly enjoy here amongst the guests, I nominate the burly Irishman Sean Flannigan, who has more fun with his "international accent" than any other character, and who can actually induce a bit of a chuckle in the audience. Sadly, it seems his best bits are in the missing episodes 4 and 5.

The cyber spaceship seems pretty lame, unable to defend itself, and yet with the ambition of taking over the Earth. Yeah right. How far would the Cybermen's plans really have gone if (1) the crew of the Wheel weren't such incompetent nerds and (2) the Doctor and Jamie had not appeared and protected the rocket on account of the TARDIS being parked there?

"You won't explain?"

Whitaker's dialogue gets lamer and lamer. Why is Jamie scrounging for excuses instead of telling Zoe that he's leaving in the Doctor's time machine? Why? What is it about secrecy that Whitaker feels all of his characters should instinctively pollute their relationships with it, thus lowering their integrity and making for less watchable scenes? The TARDIS is not aptly demonstrated here, nor is the concept of Doctor Who adventure really sold to a fresh audience. The clip of "The Evil of the Daleks" (story no. 36) is more "murderous monster spectacle" with cheap special effects than anything enticing one to explore the universe. How Zoe slips into the TARDIS and gets as far as the tickle trunk is a strain on credulity, especially as Jamie is going the same way at the same time and yet she somehow butts ahead of him without him knowing! (Then again, the whole console room layout seems to be flipped from left to right in this episode.) Still, it's another example of secrecy at work again beyond the level of good taste.

"The Wheel in Space" just doesn't cut the mustard with me. (Or perk the cyber-coffee for that matter.) David Whitaker is good when writing about history or culture or stories that develop out of character flaws, but he is not the right man to try to expand Kit Pedler's very scientifically based story notes - the character flaws really only get in the way of the story telling here, until neither works properly. This adventure still beats many others from seasons four and six, and certainly has an effectively lonely, creepy atmosphere it can fall back on, which it often does. Favourite adversaries, a new interesting companion, and a very visually creative directing job by Tristan de Vere Cole bring many good highlights to the story closing off Doctor Who's most consistently good season to date, but "The Wheel in Space" is unfortunately the least effective story of the bunch.

International Titles:

Magyar: "A kerék az űrben"

Français: (La roue dans l'espace)

Русский: "Колесо в космосе"

Rankings for Season Five

Best Stories:

  • The Tomb of the Cybermen
  • The Web of Fear
  • The Ice Warriors
  • Fury From the Deep
  • The Abominable Snowmen
  • The Enemy of the World
  • The Wheel in Space

Best Writers:

  • Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
  • Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln
  • Brian Hayles
  • Victor Pemberton
  • David Whitaker (poor plots)

Best Directors (everybody did well this season):

  • Morris Barry
  • Douglas Camfield
  • Derek Martinus
  • Hugh David
  • Gerald Blake
  • Tristan de Vere Cole
  • Barry Letts

Best local lead character:

  • Col. Lethbridge Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)
  • Clent (Peter Barkworth)
  • Professor Parry (Aubrey Richards)
  • Professor Travers (Jack Watling)
  • Captain Knight (Ralph Watson)
  • Khrisong (Norman Jones)
  • Robson (Victor Maddern)
  • Giles Kent (Bill Kerr)
  • Donald Bruce (Colin Douglas)
  • Jarvis Bennett (Michael Turner)

Best Music:

  • The Tomb of the Cybermen
  • The Web of Fear
  • The Ice Warriors (Dudley Simpson)
  • Fury From The Deep (Dudley Simpson)
  • The Wheel in Space (Brian Hodgson)
  • The Enemy of the World

Doctor Who: Lost in Time - Patrick Troughton
2 DVD discs

(also included in Lost in Time Boxed Sets)

Coverage on The Wheel in Space includes:
  • Episode 3
  • censor clips from episodes 4 & 5 (30 sec.)
  • Episode 6
    • (episode 6 with optional commentary by story editor Derrick Sherwin, and director Tristan de Vere Cole)
More details & buying options for "Lost in Time" DVD's
Audio CD - Doctor Who - The Wheel in Space.

This audio CD set features the complete audio tracks of all 6 television episodes of this story, narrated by actress Wendy Padbury (who also played Zoe) to help listeners follow what used to be visual aspects of the story. This version is playable in any normal audio CD player.
Doctor Who: Cybermen - The Early Years
introduced by Colin Baker

1 VHS video tape

Coverage on The Wheel in Space includes:
  • Two complete episodes:
    • Episode 3
    • Episode 6
  • interviews with actress Wendy Padbury (Zoe), and Cyber voice Roy Skelton.
More details & buying options for missing episode VHS videos
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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Dominators"

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